Formula 1’s first qualifying of 2021 has promised a brave new world for the championship after seven years of Mercedes supremacy in the hybrid era.
The Silver Arrows put up a fight but were ultimately powerless to challenge Max Verstappen for pole position, while also feeling more pressure from the likes of AlphaTauri and Ferrari than they would have at any point in 2020.
But does the pecking order in Bahrain suggest a more exciting campaign ahead and the first title battle in a long while that goes down to the wire? Or will someone pull away again as the season gathers team, whether it be Red Bull or Mercedes?
An early hint of a season for the ages
It’s early days, but 2021 hasn’t let us down after the promise shown in testing. With Red Bull setting the pace and Mercedes not far behind, this could be the best title fight – and the only intra-team one to go the distance – of the V6 turbo hybrid era.
You have to go back to 2012 for the last title fight between different teams that went the distance. In Hamilton and Verstappen, we have two brilliant drivers with the potential to produce a battle for the ages.
Now, all we need is for this to continue, ideally for the performance to swing from team to team according to the venue and a true test of a pair of great drivers and teams.
It doesn’t happen often in F1, but when it does it is epic. Two days into the season, at least the hope is still there for a season for the ages.
As soon as Mercedes catch up…
It’s certainly got the ingredients for a fantastic season – so long as Mercedes can catch up! Four-tenths is a lot. But in fairness, Sakhir is rarely a good track for it.
Even in its dominant seasons, it has usually taken a dip around this place and the premium it places on combining good rear tyre deg for the race with a responsive enough turn-in for the slow corners in qualifying. There’s something in the DNA, probably to do with the long-wheelbase/low rake combination, that makes this a tricky track for the Silver Arrows. So that’s just to emphasise that although 0.4s seems a big deficit – it may not actually be that anywhere else, even if we just take a snapshot of the two cars exactly as they are right now.
Also, just look at how much progress the team has made since testing two weeks ago when it’s now clear that the 0.7s deficit was real. As Hamilton said today, Mercedes has halved the deficit since then. So, yes I think the odds are good that we don’t just get dominance of a different colour. I’m optimistic that we have actually got an epic contest on our hands and we see two of the great drivers battle it out in that generational match-up that we have so often been denied by the sport’s vagaries.
The best the hybrid era has offered
Whatever route the season takes now will breathe a bit of fresh air into F1 and provide the best season of the hybrid era.
If this is indicative of how the season will be and Red Bull has an inherent pace advantage then we will see Max Verstappen attempt to handle the pressure of a maiden title challenge with Lewis Hamilton digging deeper than he probably ever has to try to overcome the deficit.
If this is the worst of Mercedes’ car worries and the rear stability is not as pronounced at other tracks, the gap will be basically nothing and it will be a battle royale.
And if Mercedes overcomes the deficit on display today, it surely will not be by much at all.
It looks like we will either get our Verstappen/Hamilton fight one way or the other – or have a changing of the guard. Either outcome is good for F1.
And if that’s not enough, this season has tremendous strength in depth as well with an incredibly high quality of line-ups and a condensed midfield that’s closer to the front as well.
Bring it on.
Wait for Mercedes at Imola
I’m reluctant to get as excited as I want to be – we’ve still only seen the 2021 F1 car field at one circuit, albeit one with a decent variety of corners to show their pace. It doesn’t feel as representative yet as it would if Red Bull’s superiority had been clear at both a test venue and a different season-opener track.
I also feel like I was disappointed too many times in the early 2000s when – desperate for some variety from Ferrari title wins – I’d cling to any hope the likes of Williams, McLaren or even BAR generated with perky performances around the ‘flyaway’ races only for the Ferrari/Michael Schumacher steamroller to hit its stride when F1 reached Imola or Barcelona and run away with it from there.
We’re going to Imola next, and Mercedes has three weeks to get its very wise head around its problems before then…
But wow it would be fun to see this sort of competition right through to December, so I hope I’m wrong.
It’s not that different from 2020
I’m not sure we have seen the real picture yet. It would be very exciting to think that the shootout we saw for pole position was going to be something we will see every race weekend, but the reality is the top three are the same as the top three from the last race of last year.
Yes, it’s a slightly different way around but when you consider where Mercedes has come from since testing it has made up a lot of ground so now it’s all about what’s in the pipeline for future races.
We know that Verstappen and Hamilton leave nothing on the table when it comes to a qualifying lap and today was no exception. They both showed how when push comes to shove they can raise their game to a level most of the others can only dream about and the gap to their team-mates just confirms that.
We have a long way to go yet to be sure
It’s not until we get halfway through the season until we know the answer to the question and for a potentially astounding arms race to begin.
By arms race, I’m referring to the fact that if Hamilton and Verstappen are close heading into mid-season, which team will commit and defer resources, attention from 2022 and the new rules cycle? That’s a scintillating prospect if neither backs down in pursuit of the honours this year, possibly also impacting the next.
If the teams and drivers further back continue to throw in upsets and surprises as we saw today, there’s a chance of a great season.
Fundamentally though, it appears there are only two teams capable of winning races without some sort of adversity thrown in – and two drivers capable of challenging for the title. That’s not ideal.
As per Edd Straw’s entry, it will unlikely beat 2012. Seven winners in the first seven races. We won’t see that this year as there’s not six world champions lining up on the grid like there was then, but also Bottas has proven he is not of the standard of Hamilton and Verstappen, while Perez’s adaptation at Red Bull may be more slow-burning than perhaps anticipated.